|US Army Photo|
"Is that it?"
"Yup, just a loose wire. Let's fire this thing up."
PFC Willis Jefferson climbed back into the cab of the truck and pressed the starter. The engine hesitated at first, then came to life with a roar.
"Sounds good to me. Hawkins, you ready to roll?"
"Yeah, let's get moving, maybe we can catch the convoy before nightfall!"
With that Private Moses Wiltshire got into the cab with Jefferson, while Private James Hawkins manned the .50 cal behind the cab. Soon the truck was rolling down the road once more, somewhere in France, headed towards the front.
They'd hit a pretty bad pothole a couple of miles back which, unbeknownst to them, had jarred a wire loose, causing the engine to run rough. Eventually they began to lose speed and the convoy commander had left them to catch up as best as they could. Now they were trying to do just that.
While sitting in the cab, Pvt Wiltshire had pulled out a map, he was looking for a shortcut. While they weren't supposed to deviate from the marked Red Ball highways, it was done from time to time.
"Hey, Willis, take the next right, that should take us around the next big town and we should be able to make up time and catch up to the convoy."
"What makes you think some damned country road will be better than a major highway?" Pvt Jefferson was a believer in the rules. Rules said stay on the designated route, the Army had figured all this out.
"Remember the last big town we went through, shot all to Hell, rubble and ruins everywhere? What are the odds that these little villages will cause us any delay?"
Pvt Hawkins yelled down from his gun mount, "Ya know Willis, Moses has a point, the road might not be as good but it surely won't be all tore up like some of these big towns have been. The Germans have been tearing stuff up, laying mines, and booby traps all over. I say we take the shortcut."
As the turn which Wiltshire had indicated was coming up, Jefferson had to decide soon. Wiltshire was right, the last big town they'd gone through reminded him of city traffic, back when he was a cab driver. Stop and go, hurry up and wait, Jefferson had been in the Army long enough to know, they didn't always get it right. So he slowed and swung the wheel of the big deuce and a half to the right.
"You keep me on the right path Moses, you get us lost and I'll shoot you before the damned Krauts get the chance!"
"Jesus L.T., are you okay?"
Sgt Brandt and his squad had dismounted from their truck and immediately started to sweep the area for mines as best they could. Probing with bayonets and being very, very careful. The halftrack that 2Lt Paddock and some of the men of platoon headquarters had been riding in had hit a mine. While the back end of the vehicle was mostly intact, the front end was a mess.
Once they'd cleared a path to the wrecked vehicle, Sgt Brandt checked the front, Sgt Fortin had been driving, with Sgt Draper riding next to him, both men were hurt, Brandt couldn't tell how badly.
The lieutenant had blood all over his field jacket, but it wasn't his, the man sitting next to him, platoon messenger Private Curt Lawrence had been hit by a lot of debris from both the mine and the left front fender of the halftrack. He was very dead. PFC Herman Shapiro, Privates John Myerson and Jim Romano had also been in the back of the halftrack. Romano and Shapiro were both mildly concussed, Myerson had a deep cut on one cheek, but was otherwise okay.
"It's not my blood Sarge, it's Lawrence's. I'm a little woozy and can't hear shit, but I think I'm okay. What about Draper and Fortin?"
Corporal Wilson's section was providing security while Brandt's section secured the area around the halftrack, Cajun had gone in to check on Fortin and Draper.
"Sarn't Fortin's dead L.T., Sarn't Draper will be in a minute, he's got more holes in him than Swiss cheese. There's no way I can stop that much bleeding."
Cajun was trying anyway, but to no avail, Sgt Dan Draper's wounds were fatal.
"Shit, Draper's dead Sarge." Cajun used the dead man's field jacket to wipe his hands of the man's blood. Though nobody liked Draper, he was one of their own. Cajun lit a cigarette and walked back to the truck, shaking his head.
As he stepped to the cab of the truck, there was an explosion. They hadn't cleared all of the mines.
As PFC Jefferson swung the big truck around a bend in the road, the three men all heard,and saw, the explosion to their front. PFC Jefferson slowly came to a halt as Pvt Hawkins began to search the nearby fields and woods for signs of the enemy. Pvt Wiltshire grabbed his carbine and dismounted.
"I think we're clear Willis, but I'll stay up here if you and Moses want to check those guys out." Hawkins stayed on the big .50, ready to engage as needed.
Jefferson was also clear of the vehicle, he'd grabbed his M3 "Grease gun" and was cautiously advancing on the parked truck and the damaged halftrack. There were at least three men still in the track, none of them moving, there were a few guys on the ground, weapons trained out, and a few more men down, not moving, though one was coughing and struggling to get up.
Cajun was still trying to clear his ears, the explosion had been on the other side of the truck, he was mostly unhurt, a few scratches on his legs from fragments, mostly though his ears were ringing and he had a headache. As he turned he saw two black men approaching, weapons at the ready. He saw another black man on a .50 cal up on the truck. It struck him that he'd never seen an armed Negro¹ before.
One of the men looked at him and asked, "You okay, man. You look a little shook up."
Cajun chuckled and said, "Yeah man, I'm all right, but I can't hear for shit right now."
Wiltshire said, "It's the explosion man, they f**k you up if you're too close. I seen guys dead back on the beach without a mark on 'em, but the explosion killed 'em anyways."
From the other side of the truck Jefferson spoke up, "You guys are gonna need a ride, this truck is messed up, and I got a dead man over here, no legs. Two more who don't look so good, I think they're dead too."
Brandt was trying to assess the platoon's losses so far. The lieutenant was out of it for the moment. The platoon sergeant and the platoon guide, Draper and Fortin, were both dead. One of the platoon messengers, Lawrence, was also dead. Looking back at the truck, Sgt Brandt saw the Red Ball truck, identifiable by the large red disk on the right front bumper, with a man manning a machine gun, and two more men, not from his platoon, on either side of the truck he'd just been riding in. Three more were down next to the truck.
"Shit. You okay L.T.?" The lieutenant had gone to ground when the last explosion had occurred, he was obviously shaken.
"I'm good Bill," he turned to look at his truck, he didn't notice the new arrivals, all he saw was three of his men lying in the road. "Go check them out. I just gotta clear my head, catch my breath."
The lieutenant looked really shaky, who could blame him? He'd been in a halftrack which ran over a mine, he had the blood of one of his men all over him, as far as he could tell, the platoon headquarters was decimated.²
Brandt walked back to the truck, saw the black PFC and introduced himself, "Hi, I'm Sgt Brandt."
"Hey Sarge, I'm Willis Jefferson, these your guys?" He said gesturing to the men on the ground, all of whom were apparently dead.
Brandt looked, sure enough, platoon headquarters was nearly gone, there on the ground were PFC Herman Jansen, Pvt Miles Hamblin, and Pvt Mark Brown. Hamblin had been the one to trigger the mine, it had thrown him across the road after taking both of his legs off above the knees. Nearer the truck were the bodies of Jansen and Brown. Jansen had been alive for a short while, he had been the man Jefferson had seen trying to get up, he had died soon thereafter. Brown looked untouched, like he wasn't even hurt. Brandt knelt down to check on him.
"Platoon HQ, not my guys, but I know these men." Sgt Brandt continued to check Brown for wounds.
"Don't bother Sarge, I've seen this before, sometimes the concussion kills ya and doesn't leave a mark." Jefferson shook his head as he said that, he was really sad all of a sudden.
"You were on the beach on the day, weren't you?" Somehow Brandt could tell, he'd seen black troops on the beach, handling supplies, manning barrage balloons. He wasn't a fan of the way the Army treated the colored troops. He'd known a few blacks back in L.A., back when he'd had pretensions of being a musician. But that was a long time ago. This guy carried himself like a combat vet, like he'd seen things no man wanted to see.
"Sarge, I hate to say it, but we gotta move. We got separated from our convoy and my sergeant's gonna have my ass if I don't catch up by nightfall." Jefferson looked at the western horizon, sunset was approaching in an hour or so.
"Right, right, can you give us a hand? I want to get these guys off the road, all we can do is leave 'em here for the Graves Registration guys. Nothing else we can do for 'em. Don't suppose we can get a lift to the next town?"
"Yeah sure Sarge, as long as you don't mind riding on ration crates."
Brandt looked around, what had been twenty men that morning was now down to fourteen. Six dead, not even in combat but in a rear area, German mines. This road was supposed to have been cleared by the engineers yesterday, guess they missed a couple.
At the moment he hated the engineers almost as much as he hated the Germans.
They all squeezed onto the truck, Pvt Wiltshire gave up his seat to the lieutenant, who was still badly shaken. Brandt was more than a little worried about the man. As Wiltshire climbed into the back of the truck with 2nd Squad and the remnants of platoon headquarters, he shouted, "Okay, Willis, we're good, let's roll."
Another day in France was over. Men who had survived the hedgerows were now lying alongside the road, miles from the front, but just as dead as the men who'd died back in the bocage. Brandt looked at Wiltshire and said, "This war can't end soon enough."
"Amen Sarge, amen."
The truck rolled on into the dusk.
¹ Pvt Tremblay might have used a harsher term, he was from Louisiana after all, but he'd worked with black men before he went in the Army. They weren't called "African-Americans" back then, to my knowledge. It was either "colored" or "Negro" in polite society.
² Yes, decimated means literally ten percent casualties, in the vernacular it's used to mean the loss of a lot of men.
Author's Note: Hat tip to Larry for the idea.